PORT ARTHUR —
Johnny Courville, 71, known on stage as Johnny Preston and singer of “Running Bear,” died Friday, March 4, at Christus St. Elizabeth Hospital.
Sam Monroe, president of Lamar State College-Port Arthur, said there was a community pride about this local boy who did good. Funeral arrangments are pending at Levingston Funeral Home in Groves.
He said J.P. Richardson, known nationally as The Big Bopper with his hit, “Chantilly Lace,” wrote the song “Running Bear,” which made Preston famous.
“He presented it to Johnny in a club in Port Neches. He had a tape demonstration. Johnny didn’t like the song because it really didn’t fit his style and it really didn’t portray his voice in the right way. He was a magnificent singer with a great range,” Monroe said.
Monroe said Richardson told him that if Preston didn’t want it, it would be a hit for someone else. Preston took the bait.
“He recorded it in Houston and it made the national charts and it stayed there for 26 weeks. It was a huge hit,” Monroe said.
The song details the love affair between a Native American couple who couldn’t share their love because of their tribes fought against each other.
“Johnny and I have been friends for many years. I guess I first met him back in the late 1950s. I remember playing his records. We took pride in playing them,” Monroe said, recalling his radio days at KPAC.
“Johnny and I have been friends for many years. I guess I first met him back in the late 1950s. It gave us all a lot of pride, even though it was his accomplishment,” Monroe said.
The pair gave musical history programs to Rotary, Sertoma and other groups. Later Preston invited friends he toured with to help raise funds for the college, Monroe said. They included Danny and the Juniors, The Chiffons and The Crystals.
Monroe said Preston was impressed that Lamar has a music technology program, because he had to learn the business on his own.
Preston’s entry in the Museum of the Gulf Coast notes that he was born Aug. 18, 1939, attended Port Arthur schools and sang in high school statewide choral contests. He formed his own rock and roll band, The Shades. Preston earned a gold record with the album "Running Bear" (1959). Other recordings include "Cradle of Love" (1960), "Feel So Fine" (1962), and "Free Me" (1962).
Jivin Gene Bourgeois, local swamp pop singer, said he knew Preston was sick and had been reliving memories of their recording sessions and tours.
“It’s really a shocker. We went to high school with each other (Bishop Byrne High School) and we lived just a few blocks from each other. I think Johnny was one of the most talented vocalists that ever came out of Port Arthur,” Bourgeois said.
Besides rhythm and rock, Preston could sing ballads and religious songs.
“He could sing ‘Ave Maria’ that could just give you chills, seemd like the church walls were gonna rattle,” Bourgeois said.
Jeff Hayes, a friend of Preston’s, said he heard the singer at The Beehive, a club on the Procter Street Extension.
“I thought, this guy’s got a great voice,” Hayes said.
He introduced himself and they were friends for life.
“He was always so nice to everybody,” Hayes said. “I used to see him down at Boneau’s Record Shop.”